Commentary

Longing for the Good Old Days of American Journalism

By John McManus
Posted July 13, 2006

Remember the good old days of American journalism – way back in 2006?

You could still get home delivery of a decent metro newspaper for $15 a month. Almost every paper in the country was free on the Web.

Local TV news wasn’t great, but you could learn something by watching.

We didn’t realize how good we had it.

Just as a star expands exponentially before it dies, the volume of free or cheap news swelled before it imploded.

John McManus

Looking back on 2006, the signs were everywhere:

We should have seen this coming when rather than competing, the San Francisco Chronicle’s owner, Hearst, assimilated, buying into the MediaNews monopoly.

We didn’t anticipate the impact on local TV’s already thinly-staffed newsrooms as video on the Web eroded newscasts’ audience and advertisers.

Academics used to think local TV news couldn’t get any worse. They should see it now!

It was late 2007 when we first began to pay for local news on Web sites.

The drop in newspaper circulation and ad revenue accelerated in 2005 and ‘06. As laptops and broadband got cheaper, news on the Web became as convenient as paper. Newspapers finally realized they couldn’t compete with themselves, not for free.

It may be hard to imagine, but once you could access a complete archive of the Chronicle on SFGate gratis. For a time the explosion of free content enabled thousands of fresh voices on the Web.

But today support for journalism has withered. Speech is no longer free.

We never thought we’d miss those reporters who questioned authority when they were retired during the great newspaper consolidation of ‘06.

At first we welcomed skim, homogenized news. Fewer stories. Less perplexing. Those short, sensational articles were so easy to digest.

We applauded the absence of scandals and the flood of good news for a while -- until we realized most of it was rewritten from press releases.

News was a hybrid of public service and private profit-seeking business then. Now news is just a commodity – all the news that’s fit to sell.

Turns out the news we most needed wasn’t the news most wanted.

We hoped politicians would do the right thing without our having to go to the trouble of monitoring them. Same for the big corporations.

But they took paradise and put up a parking lot.

Now we long for those days when many people knew what was going down and half even voted.